The Chumps of Choice

A Congenial Spot for the Discussion of Against the Day, by Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Cornell '59, and Any Other Damned Thing That Comes Into Our Heads. Warning: Grad Students and Willie-Wavers will be mocked.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Deus ex Machina, I Presume

Against the Day pp. 779-791

View from Vanavara trading post, at the moment of the explosion.
Painting © William K. Hartmann.


A heavenwide blast of light (779) heralds the Tunguska Event of 30 Jun 1908. Current thinking interprets this massive explosion as an airburst at an altitude of 5-10 km of an asteroid or comet on the order of 500 m diameter and equivalent to a nuclear explosion of 10-20 megatons (1,000 Hiroshimas in the obligatory comparison). The most notable evidence of this stupendous event over a sparsely-populated Siberia was tree-flattening over an area of some 2,150 square km.

The Bol'shaia Igra under Capt. Padzhitnoff is snooping around the vicinity, pondering the Event and the lack of an impact crater or notable debris. The locals blame the Agdy, the God of Thunder. The Chinese are, of course, suspect ("remember who invented gunpowder" 780:18). Radiation levels and reports of stones raining from the sky (déjà vu) and general political intrigue and uncertainty moot the possibilities that the Event may be an extra-dimensional interaction, with effects felt at another time and place or a weapons test by the Bol'shaia Igra, possibly involving capacitative discharge.

In another part of Siberia (and it's a big place), Kit Traverse and Dwight Prance react to the Event with hyperattention and hysteria, respectively. Improbably, two black birds pop out of the aether. The natives are restless and start up the drums, perhaps as a homeopathic talisman against the Thunder God. Prance is shot at as a Japanese spy. Religious mania ensues, centering on the star Tchernobyl (Wormwood) out of the Book of Revelation. Reindeer acquire the power of flight and red noses (we get it, Tom). Biota of Tierra del Fuego at the antipode manifest themselves. Magyakan, the Shaman we encountered on p. 143 with the Vormance Expedition, goes missing. Kit worries about the quaternion weapon that he turned over to Umeki Tsurigame back in Ostend (784).

Ssagan, a white reindeer, gives them a lift to Tuva, on the Mongolian border, a strangely tranquil region which may, in fact, be Shambala. Prance thinks it has all the trappings - an island of tibetan Buddhism in a surround of Islam, Old Uyghur, the Wheel of Life, throat singing. And after the Event, It's unclear whether their mission from Lieutenant-Colonel Halfcourt still exists. They decide to part ways. Kit rides off over the steppe (787).

The Inconvenience appears overhead, being the third Deus ex Machina in this short section. Prance asks if they're good Deities or bad Deities (c.f. Wheel of Life). Randolph St. Cosmo says they eneavor to be kind, while Darby Suckling, by now a thoroughly jaded mascotte, is surly. they invite Prance aboard to discuss compassion over a Lafite '99.

Kit, on the road, falls in with a band of brodyagi, internal exiles devolved into banditry, and their axe-master Topor, whose main pursuits are distilled spirit and Amanita muscaria. They come upon a railroad a-building- the fabled, hidden "Tuva to Taklamakan". Kit wanders into an exploring camp and has a Dr. Livingstone moment encountering Fleetwood Vibe (!). They touch on the old man ("no longer of sound mind" 789:18) and brother 'Fax (pitching under an assumed name [this would be an anachronistic Sandy Koufax] in the Pacific Coast League. Fleetwood is not seeking Shambala ("I no longer have the right 790:9), but a cluster of secret cities, csecular counterparts to the Buddhist Hidden Lands, whose doors may have been opened to him by the Event. "Whatever goes on in there, whatever unspeakable compact with sin and death,, is what I am destined for -- the goal of this long pilgrimage, whose penance is my life." (790:31). Kit's reply is "You know, you're like every other so-called explorer out here, a remittance man with too much sense of privilege, no idea what to do with it" (790:35).

Kit and Fleetwood fall into an uneasy sleep, dreaming of murdering each other and amidst a great windstorm, Fleetwood recalls back to the Event and the evil precence unleashed by the Vormance Expedition. Would Kit bring his torment to an end? But he has left in the night.

Notes and Commentary:

The "heavenwide blast of light" strongly echoes "A screaming comes across the sky" from Gravity's Rainbow and to my mind marks one of the few times Pynchon steps out of character to become "authorly".

Alternative explanations of Tunguska have of course arisen, ranging from comets to black holes anti-matter to UFOs on a progressive scale of woo-woo. and notably our friend Dr. Nikola Tesla's "Death Ray" is also raised as a possibility.

The Tunguska Event may be related to or may be (in disconnected space-time) the "meteorite" pursued back around p. 130 by the Vormance Expedition.

Kit's speculation that the weirdness of the apperance of the black birds depends exquisitely on the position of a bettle on the other side of the world is the Brizilian butterfly of Chaos theory. They also echo the sperm whale and bowl of petunias manifesting in the backwash of the Infinite Improbability field in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The throat singers of Tuva exhibit a form of vocal bilocation, amplifying fundamentals and overtones through the manipulation of the vocal apparatus. All trained singers do this, but the singers of Tuva control the overtones independently. Ths singing commences at about 4:15 into the audio at the link above.

Tuva and Taklamakan are about the last places a rational person would want to connect with a railroad.


H. Rumbold, Master Barber


At Monday, July 23, 2007 9:04:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Nice summary, Barber, and thanks so much for pointing out that "Magyakan, the Shaman we encountered on p. 143 with the Vormance Expedition, goes missing." I would never have put the two together as the same person (talk about a long time between appearances).

Just as I'd never heard of Lake Baikal, I'd also never heard of the Tunguska Event before this book. Jesus H. Cristo, from the Barber's various links, it seems that nobody STILL knows what happened, positing everything from a comet to a meterorite to Tesla's Death Device. Pynchon's space/time continuum explosion makes as much sense as anything else. Does anybody here have a theory?

At Tuesday, July 24, 2007 4:57:00 AM, Blogger Robert Z. said...

Thanks to H. Rumbold for a good summary, which has taken care of some of the heavy lifting for me: next week's chapter will continue to document various characters' reactions to the Event, and wild speculation and theories will figure prominently, so we're gonna have a few weeks to really scratch our heads over the significance of the Event in the book's bilocated world.

As far as our world is concerned, I think I recall an "In Search Of..." episode on Tunguska that covered most of the crackpot ideas (black holes, UFOs) and none of the prosaic ones.

Speaking of prosaic, a curous little new story broke just last month: Crater Could Solve 1908 Tunguska Meteor Mystery. Hm.

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At Wednesday, July 25, 2007 4:01:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

The advent of the Tunguska Event, and the varied aspects of specualtion and wonder surrounding it, might best be seen as a refelction, or parody, of the X-ian idea of the singualr intervention of God in History that's innate in the belief in Christ.

It certainly seems to have driven all the westerners within earshot crazy, some more than others. Kit, as screwed up as he is, has at least the humility to grasp that meanings here do not apply, and his disappearance is not unlike Hassan's.

Prance, gone bonkers enough to be taken aboard by the Chums - to be dropped off who-knows-where, and F. Vibe, mad enough to look for hidden cities, are sketches of the calculating and programmatic western order which soon gets lost in the mystic east.

Interesting that Tancredi's invisible infernal machine, or his attempt at least, apparently did something strange to Scarsdale Vibe, if only detach him from the lives of his children, to their benefit, from the sounds of it. (And great catch there with "Sandy" Colfax!)

Finally, as I freshen up for the Rapture, I hope that Agdy really is the name of the Siberian Thunder god, besides also an abbreviation of Against the Day.

At Wednesday, July 25, 2007 10:30:00 AM, Blogger H. Rumbold, Master Barber said...

re: Agdy- well and truly spotted, Will. Colfax I got out of the AtD wiki. And I only remembered Magyakan because I did that section.

The apocalyptic interpretation of Tunguska is as good as any, and I didn't even mention the large figure seen walking around the woods that everyone had to look up to - however the natural world as well as the populace is seen as going bonkers (Tierra del Fuego inversion, etc.). So I wouldn't want to rule out Q-weapon, quaternion impingement, anti-stone related to Vormance phenomenon at this stage. One could even go to the other end of the Bible and argue that Shambala is Eden and the Event the Fall.

Is anyone as bothered as I was that TRP hits us over the head so blatantly with Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer? I would have liked to visit a bit longer with Topor the axe-master.

At Sunday, July 29, 2007 6:23:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

The historical Tunguska Event is very much a case of growing-in-the-telling. It happened in a remote stretch of a country that was in many ways still peripheral to "first world" concerns -- and would be plunging into war, revolution, civil war, and a secrecy-obsessed regime before any thorough descriptions of the site made it into the mainstream of world scientific publication.

c. 1960, when I was reading science columns by Asimov, Willy Ley, Sprague de Camp, et al, information about Tunguska was still very sparse and frgamentary.

So this version, wrapped in "Great Game" intrigue as if it had been world-shaking at the time, is more P's invention than rediscovered history. (I'm fine with both... just sayin.)

Terrific slide show, guys!

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